For many years I spent New Year's eve reflecting on the events of the year drawing to a close and New Year's day clarifying my plans and aspirations for the year ahead. Eventually, I recognized that my aspirations were the same year after year: to be more present for my life, to open my heart even more fully to love and connection, to be of benefit to others. Over the years I discovered that I could affect the circumstances of my life to a limited degree, but I always had the power to find happiness in the midst of any situation. And in my work with people as a teacher and therapist, I've come to realize that we all aspire to essentially the same thing. Who among us doesn't want to be happy, to enjoy life, to share love and connection? Even the suicide bomber and the drug dealer have the same aspirations. The only difference lies in how we go about actualizing them.
That's why the first few weeks of the new year can be a powerful time to consider how best to accomplish our goals. Will making more money or buying more things, gaining more power or finding the right partner, necessarily do the trick? Or is there a deeper and more fulfilling solution to the dissatisfaction and disappointment that inevitably follow our every accomplishment or acquisition like a shadow? Instead of focusing our attention exclusively on externals -- redecorating the house, losing weight, getting a raise -- we can take some time to reflect on what really makes us happy, not just for a moment, a day, or a week, but lastingly, reliably, day after day.
The Dalai Lama defines happiness as "wanting what you have, and not wanting or craving what you don't have." But isn't craving, desiring, longing, the fuel that keeps the engine of our lives churning forward, keeps free enterprise alive and thriving, keeps us from falling through the cracks and becoming bag ladies (or men), the proverbial survival fear that haunts our dreams? Perhaps, but what do we desire above all else? Isn't it, paradoxically, the end of desire, those moments when all longing, efforting, and aspiring cease and we feel content and deeply satisfied with the moment just as it is? When we finally get the latest iPhone or the 64-inch plasma TV or the new Lexus, we may enjoy the contentment temporarily as we bask in the glow of our achievement -- until the next need or longing ratchets up our expectations and reboots the process all over again. Even the ideal job or the perfect relationship only fulfills us for so long, until the honeymoon comes to an end. Isn't that your experience as well?
So how can we achieve this elusive happiness we crave? Not by habitually fleeing the present moment or situation in our attempts to find or create or effort into being some superior alternative that we imagine will fulfill us. Not by avoiding the gifts and difficulties, the people and things of our life just as it is -- the imperfect body, the imperfect family, the imperfect job -- but by stopping in mid-flight, turning around, and meeting what life offers us with acceptance, grace, even gratitude.
The key to accomplishing this transformation in our fundamental attitude toward life lies in the practice of mindfulness, or, as I prefer to call it, present moment awareness. In other words, we can learn how to show up for life and relish the moment. These days such a simple injunction can be extraordinarily difficult because our attention is constantly being ambushed and distracted by those glowing screens and demanding cell phones that promise something better and more interesting over there, inside that device, anywhere but here.
But if you cultivate the habit of being present, moment after moment, a rich new world reveals itself: relationships become more intimate, the natural world more vibrant, your inner life more meaningful. The only thing separating you right now from this more fulfilling way of being is one simple practice, which is now more widely accessible than ever. If you're going to make one New Year's resolution that promises to provide you with abiding satisfaction, year after year, I would suggest that you resolve to practice mindfulness meditation. You can learn how to do it in an hour or two, but, as numerous scientific studies have shown, it will benefit you in countless ways for the rest of your life.